Go to any major museum in the world with a decent Impressionist collection and you’ll see at least one of Claude Monet’s signature series subjects, whether it be Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, the Houses of Parliament, Mornings on the Seine, or the Water Lilies. Born November 14, 1840, Monet loved to muse over the same subject endlessly, painting it in all types of weather and light. When he built his home in Giverny, Monet set up a beautiful garden in that he could paint to his heart’s content. One of the more exotic features of Monet’s garden remains the Japanese Bridge that appears in such works as Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies (above, from 1899). Unlike the “Bridge to Nowhere” made infamous by the recent American election, Monet’s “bridge to nowhere” actually led to a world of improvisation and experimentation. The Giverny garden served as a laboratory for Monet in which he could mix and match natural elements completely under his control to get at the effects locked away in his imagination and longing to be freed.
Over time, Monet’s improvisations got wilder and wilder. The Japanese Bridge (above, from 1918-1924), painted nearly a quarter century after the Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies of 1899 and completed just two years before Monet’s death, barely acknowledges the physical fact of a bridge arching over a lily-strewn pond. At this point, the actual bridge was superfluous for Monet. Monet’s cataracts may have contributed to the increasing unreality of his work, but the general direction of Monet’s painting was away from realism and more towards the borders of abstraction. Some argue that the choice of bright, almost acidic color also indicates the effect of Monet’s vision problems as he strained to see what he was painting and, like an elderly person turning up the volume on a television to hear better, pumped up the “volume” of his color to compensate for his declining eyesight. Medical issues aside, Monet demonstrates a greater degree of freedom in his later years. To look at one of these later works closely, you could easily imagine Chaim Soutine or any other impasto master of modern art painting in the same way.
For the last decades of his life, Monet became a victim of his own celebrity. Étienne Clémentel’s photo of Claude Monet in his garden (above, from 1917) shows the master at a rare moment of peace from well wishers and other artists looking to learn the secrets of the man whose painting, Impression, Sunrise, gave the name to an entire movement. American artists such as Theodore Robinson sought out Monet aggressively. Robinson and Monet actually became close friends, but many other, less-talented artists simply drained Monet’s energy. Today, artists and art lovers make pilgrimages to Monet’s garden at Giverny, still maintained the way Monet left it after his death over eighty years ago. For a movement based on freedom and openness, it is ironic that Monet’s controlled environment remains as the central cathedral of Impressionism, the one place unquestionably linked with Monet. The Japanese Bridge still leads physically to nowhere, but Monet’s paintings of it lead back to the workings of an obsessively creative, infinitely innovative imagination.